Fueling for Performance

Fueling for Performance

Coming into a training session under-fueled, dehydrated, or under-recovered can make even the simplest of workouts much harder than they need to be.

It may not seem like a big deal if you find yourself bonking or not drinking enough now and then in your training sessions—but if it happens often, it can have serious negative implications for your ability to adapt. Chronically trying to just get by in your training will create deficits that can really add up. 

Think of your training quality like money in your budget—if you buy a $5 Grande Mocha once or twice a year, that’s not going to break the bank. But if you buy one four times a week for five years, you’re spending $5,000…on mediocre coffee! 

In the same way, you’re “paying the price” of a few watts each training session when you under-fuel or slack on recovery. It’s not a big deal a few times a year, but the cost will add up over time. 

Let’s take a look at two different cyclists: Brian McBonk and Maximus Watts.

Brian McBonkMaximus Watts
Brian often comes homes from his training rides feeling empty, he usually feels like he’s run out of energy towards the end of his rides and struggles to make it home.Max has plenty of energy to finish the majority of his training rides feeling like he could keep going if he wanted to.
Brian finishes hard training sessions feeling like it may be hard to recover enough for another session the next day.Max finishes hard training sessions feeling strong and knows that he will likely be able to go out and do it again tomorrow.
Brian wakes up feeling heavy-legged the day after hard training sessions and often unmotivated to complete his training for that day.Max usually feels well recovered when he wakes up in the morning, his legs feel like they’re ready to hammer
Brian feels like he is frequently unable to hit his target numbers and struggles to perform consistently day after day.Max usually feels good on the bike and is usually able to hit his targets for the day regardless of what he did the day before.
On some training sessions, Brian feels like he is unable to fully drive his heart rate up because his legs feel tired.Max is able to hit peak heart rate numbers on his difficult training sessions and his legs feel like they are up to the task.
Brain does not fuel his training properly and is not giving his body the energy it requires to train hard, recover, and adapt.Max fuels for the work that is required and gives his body the energy it needs to repair itself and come back better.
Brian has not adapted from his training very well, and his improvements have stagnated.Max is continually getting stronger and improving

Both Brian and Max train the same amount and they both give their absolute best, but they have starkly different trajectories. Brian just gets by with his training, he does not put much focus on what he is doing to help his body perform and recover. Max, on the other hand, treats every training session with utmost importance. He fuels his training to perform and recover as best he can. 

If you truly want to get the most out of each training session, you must seek to perform rather than get by. Certain factors such as genetics and outside life can affect your ability to recover from training, but perhaps the most important behaviors that affect your ability to perform are under your control. The biggest one is nutrition. 

Nutrition and Recovery

Training is meant to cause damage to your body. Your body repairs this damage to improve. This requires energy. If your body does not have adequate caloric intake it will be unable to fully adapt from training stimulus. 

Think of your body as a car, which requires both the right type and amount of fuel to keep running. If the fuel tank is not refilled after a long drive (or training session), the car will not be able to drive the next day. Endurance sports require lots of the right kind of energy in order to perform optimally. The more you drive your high-octane vehicle, the more fuel you need to put back in to keep it running on all cylinders. 

If you find that you feel more like Brian McBonk in training, it’s worth taking a look at what you are putting into your body. With the proper care, you can transform yourself into Max Watts. You’ll begin to see changes in the way you are able to perform and recover from training.

Optimal Performance vs. Weight Loss

To start, remember that nutrition for weight loss is not the same as nutrition for optimal performance. In some cases, weight loss is what will lead to the biggest performance gains—but trying to lose weight during hard training will not lead to optimal performance. The best time to lose weight is during the off-season when training intensity is low. As a disclaimer, these recommendations assume that you are at or near your optimal weight. 

Secondly, I’d like to say that fueling for optimal performance can lead to some weight loss when implemented correctly. By properly fueling your training, you will be able to train harder and longer more frequently. Simply as a byproduct of burning lots of calories daily, many find that they gradually lean up during their training cycle. 

Consuming enough Calories for your training will help to regulate anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone, which will help you not only get leaner, but also adapt to training and build/maintain muscle. Those with chronic energy deficits have higher levels of stress hormones that can cause their bodies to hang on to fat stores rather than lose them and even cannibalize muscle tissue; many find that they actually get leaner and build functional muscle when fueling for optimal performance.

How to Fuel for Optimal Performance

The biggest component of fueling for performance is timing of your carbohydrates. Focus on centering carbohydrate consumption before, during, and immediately after your training. 

A good carb-based breakfast will raise your blood glucose and increase liver glycogen, which your body will use in training. This will spare muscle glycogen and prolong the onset of fatigue.

Fuel During Exercise

Eating during training that is longer that 90 minutes is also a good idea, especially if it is a particularly intense session. These carbohydrates will enter the bloodstream and the muscle, maintaining your blood sugar and giving the muscle a continuous source of energy. 

If you fail to eat after about two hours of intense aerobic exercise, your performance will start to gradually decline until the dreaded bonk occurs. When blood sugar drops, your body will burn through its remaining muscle glycogen rapidly. Then few things will happen: 

  • Muscular performance will decline. Your power/pace will rapidly decrease
  • Lowered blood sugar will impair decision making and technique. A particularly big issue during competition
  • Muscle breakdown increases
  • Rate of perceived exertion will dramatically increase

The longer and harder the session is, the more carbohydrates you need. Consuming plenty of calories during training will also help you to meet caloric requirements for the day and enhance recovery for the next bout of exercise.

Fueling After Exercise

Finally, remember that training is a catabolic process that causes damage to your body. Providing plenty of Calories immediately after training will give your body the energy it needs to begin the repair process quickly and help you recover faster. 

Carbohydrates and proteins signal hormones in your body that will tell it to begin the repair process. Without a post-workout meal, this response will be impaired; you will struggle to fully recover. Your muscles will also be depleted of glycogen. Remember—during the recovery window immediately following training, you will be able to synthesize new muscle glycogen more effectively.

The rest of the day, your body still needs carbs to replenish, but you do not want to cause a spike in blood sugar. Focus on fiber-rich, complex carbs rather than simple carb sources for your other meals of the day. Good examples would be fruits, vegetables, sweet potatoes, brown rice, and quinoa. This is also a good time to consume some lean protein and healthy fats. 

Low Carb and Ketogenic Diets

There has been increasing popularity of low carb and ketogenic diets within the sports world recently. They have been touted as a great way to get lean and improve your performance. However, unless you are an ultra-endurance athlete, it is unlikely you will find any benefit from low carb training.  

Some low carb training protocols have been shown to increase levels of mitochondria, but performance improvements remain equivocal. These low carb protocols can be difficult to properly implement and may have negative implications that can offset any potential performance gains. 

Elite athletes who are close to their physiological peak may seek “marginal gains” from low carb training under the guidance of a nutritional expert. However, most are far better off fueling for optimal performance with a balanced carbohydrate-based diet. Amateurs especially tend to have a lot of room for improvement, that can only be realized through continual training. The demands of this training are best met with proper fueling rather than experimental diets.

So to summarize: Low carbohydrate training is only a good idea if your training demands longer and more steady aerobic sessions. But if you are training for explosive, high-intensity events such as criteriums, time trials, and road races common in the amateur scene, low carb training is not a good idea. These sorts of efforts require a quick energy source such as carbohydrates. Going into these training sessions and races with optimal glycogen levels will allow you to recruit all your muscles to their full capacity and put out the maximum amount of power.

Calorie Tracking

Endurance sports burn a lot of Calories. If you are an elite athlete and/or train in high volumes, it is important to ensure that you are consuming enough Calories to facilitate recovery. Many athletes find it beneficial to track Calories to ensure they are refueling enough.

Restricting calories (voluntarily or accidentally) during training will only put your body into chronic catabolic state, impairing the replenishment of glycogen reserves. If you’ve never paid attention to your Calorie intake and feel as though your recovery may be impaired, it may be worth tracking Calories to see where you are at. 

A good first step is to eat your normal diet for 1 week during training, and log the Calories. If you find that you are going to bed with large Calorie deficits on a regular basis (>500 Calories), then you should focus on increasing portion sizes and the frequency of your meals and snacks.

When you’re hitting your Calorie targets, you will notice a big difference in your recovery, energy levels, and overall sense of wellbeing. After you’ve learned how to properly meet your caloric demands, Calorie tracking may no longer be necessary for the long term.

These strategies will allow you to get the most out of every training session. Training can be hard, make sure that you are making the most of your time and effort by giving your body what it needs to perform. Give your body the right stuff, and it will give back to you!

Landry Bobo

Landry is the founder and owner of Aspire Cycling Coaching and a USAC certified coach based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado. He has raced competitively since he was an ambitious young junior and now races at the elite level on the road. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Strength and Conditioning.  Landry enjoys sharing his experience and is always looking for dedicated athletes who want to achieve their goals. Find more info and content at www.aspirecyclingcoaching.com